You buy homeowners insurance to protect yourself when disaster strikes. But when that disaster comes from next door and you have the same insurance company as your neighbor, you may not get the simple resolution you expect. Investigative reporter Vicky Nguyen looks into a scenario that could play out in your backyard. This story first aired at 11 p.m. on Nov. 2, 2012
Returning to the site of their Fairfax home months after a huge spring storm brings back memories Linda and Chris Kenton would rather forget.
“My wife and son were sitting at the dinner table when the tree came through the roof of the house. It literally came within 3 feet of killing my wife and son,” said Chris Kenton.
Linda Kenton remembers it well.“There was just this incredibly loud sound, and I saw a flash of green through this window, and we were sitting in the dining room, and I knew immediately, oh my gosh it’s the tree.”
The tree was a 100 foot oak.
A March rainstorm brought it crashing down onto the Kentons’ roof. Tarps and plywood still cover the place they called home for 13 years. They say the home was valued at $600,000.
Grateful no one was hurt, the Kentons immediately called their insurance company, State Farm.
Turns out, their next door neighbor is also covered by State Farm.
“They’re State Farm, we’re State Farm. You would think we could get all get together and negotiate a settlement and in fact that’s not what happened. What’s happened is one side of State Farm is fighting another side of State Farm,” Chris Kenton said.
It’s been seven months since the storm, and the Kentons are still out of their home.
They accuse State Farm of containing costs on one side, while limiting a liability payment on the other side.
We asked State Farm spokesman Sevag Sarkissian if there’s any truth to that. “We’re going to work with the customer, work through their claim and get to the facts of the investigation,” Sarkissian said.
He declined to respond specifically to the Kentons’ claim, and he couldn’t tell us what the average resolution time is for a case like this. When we pressed further to find out if the Kentons would be better off if they had a different insurance company, Sarkissian said “Each claim is going to be handled on its own merits…If there’s no clear evidence that someone’s at fault, then an insurance company is not going to pay a liability claim.”
We asked, “Would it be my fault if I didn’t maintain my tree…and it fell over during a storm?”
“I’m not a legal expert or a claim representative so I can’t really answer,” Sarkissian responded.
We said, “But you work for a company that looks at liability.”
“That’s right but I’m not a claim representative, so I can’t answer that question,” Sarkissian said.
And neither could the California Department of Insurance.
The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit requested the department’s database of complaints involving homeowners insurance so we could review how many complaints involve cases where both parties are represented by the same insurance company.
Spokeswoman Pat McConahay says the department resolves most complaints in 60 days. “We will talk to both parties and get to the bottom of it, and hopefully find a resolution. Sometimes it may go in favor of the consumer sometimes it may not,” McConahay said.
Last year the office received more than 1,300 complaints about homeowners insurance alone. A total of 33 involved State Farm. Click here to see the complaints.
“If you have a concern, you need to file that complaint,” McConahay said.
Meanwhile the Kentons say State Farm sold them a policy touting its slogan, “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.”
“My fundamental expectation when i buy insurance from a company is they’re going to go to bat for me. I mean that’s how they market their product, and what’s happened over the last six months that we’ve been out of our house, is that the company has not gone to bat for us. [Instead] they’ve tried to contain costs,” Chris Kenton said.
But the Kentons report after NBC Bay Area starting asking questions, they got a call from State Farm, and within a few weeks received a check for $195,000.
Unfortunately, negotiations involving their neighbor's potential liability has not gone as well as they had hoped, and they now believe the only resolution to their dispute is to file a lawsuit.
If you have a complaint about your insurance company, the California Department of Insurance hotline is: 1-800-927-Help (4357) or 1-213-897-8921.